How to Find a Premise for a Story

How to Keep the Story Simple

Story: “Tenth of December” by George Saunders, published in The New Yorker

When the story is simple, it doesn’t need to spend a lot of time explaining and clarifying. As a writer, you want to spend your words doing interesting things, pondering interesting thoughts, being funny or poignant. You don’t want the reader asking, “Tell me again, why is Huck on the raft?”

How to Trap Incompatible Characters Together

Story: “Pull” by Stacey Swann, published in Freight Story

No movie ever had a better premise than Snakes on a Plane. If good fiction traps incompatible characters in a room, then what could better than a crowd trapped 20,000 feet above ground with humanity’s oldest enemy. But unlike the snakes and the passengers, who hate and despise each other equally, the characters in Stacey Swann’s story suffer from a far more complex incompatibility: unrequited love.

How to Write a “Stranger Comes to Town” Story

Story: “Nemecia” by Kirsten Valdez Quade, published in Narrative Magazine

This contradiction is faced by all writers. We must seek to understand the motives and meanings of our characters’ actions, but if we understand them too well, the story loses any sense of mystery. As a result, some of the greatest stories are those about the attempt to understanding something that cannot be understood.

How to Write a Love Story

Novel: Seconds Before Sunrise by Shannon A. Thompson, published by AEC Stellar

I once heard a critic claim that love stories are more difficult to write today than they were for Shakespeare. The obstacles that Shakespeare depended upon—class, feuding families, the fate of stars—have mostly been removed as possibilities, at least in America. So, if class isn’t an option, how do we put obstacles between lovers in a story other than “he’s just not that into you?” This is a problem that genre literature, especially genres that deal in fantasy elements, handles well.

How to Write from the Headlines

Story: “The Suitcases of San León” by Jane Hawley, published in Day One

In a recent interview, the late New York Times journalist David Carr was asked if cable news drove coverage of events, and he answered, in short, no. The current news cycle, he said, is so full of large, complex stories that news organizations don’t know where to look. In other words, the news is driving the news. As writers, we inhabit and absorb this same news cycle, and because of the size and savagery of some of these events, it’s tempting to incorporate the headlines into our fiction. The question is how to do it?

How to Build a Story around a Fairy Tale

Story: “The Witch” by Kseniya Melnik, published in Granta

Many writers will eventually try to write a story based on a fairy tale or folk tale. There are some powerful examples of such adaptations: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Aimee Bender’s stories, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But writing a modern fairy tale can be easier said than done. How do you capture the essence of the original tale while also creating a story that fulfills our sense of a modern story?

How to Merge Literary and Genre Stories

Story: “Dark Air” by Lincoln Michel, published by Granta

It’s a good bet that almost every writing workshop in the country includes someone writing a monster story or some other genre-inspired piece of literary fiction. The problem that those beginning writers often encounter, though, is that genres don’t merge easily as you might imagine when reading Link, Saunders, and Russell. As readers, we have expectations for realist fiction, and we have quite different expectations for stories featuring a Weekly World News roster of characters: werewolves, aliens, psychopaths, and alligator wrestlers. A story that begins in one genre tends to begin with a particular tone, a nod to the readers’ expectations, and then when the genre shifts, so must the tone. It’s this shift that gives so many writers fits.

How to Make the Familiar Seem Strange

Story: “Placentophagy” by Sequoia Nagamatsu, published in Tin House

Any discussion of writing horror, sci-fi, or fantasy fiction will inevitably arrive at the phrase “defamiliarize the familiar.” What this means, in short, is that those stories aim to make readers pay attention to something they’d normally not give a second glance. Think about the film The Shining. It transformed a kid on a tricycle into the stuff of nightmares. Of course, all writing can do this, not just genre fiction.

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